In a world heavy on snark and lacking in humor, this book offers a corrective.
Whether it’s the woes of the American education system or the fear of teaching any line of thought that questions or contradicts accepted nationalist or religious dogma, philosophy and the history of ideas have become niche pursuits for Humanities majors and freshmen hoping for an interesting 101 elective. To seek out Aristotle, Plato, Marx, Derrida, Foucault and Descartes, to name but a handful, is certainly an act of self-improvement, but the ponderousness of the material, both intellectually and by length of essay, often leads to frustration. Almost all of these men enjoyed the sound of their own voices, the scratch of quill on parchment or the clack of the typewriter because they would take an idea, exhaust it and then start anew. Reading these works is an exercise for the eyes and brain and it requires resistance training. You don’t walk into the gym and bench 250 on the first day. Likewise, you don’t tackle Das Kapital as your first foray even though it was your New Year’s resolution. You need a form that is both lightweight and poignant to ease into the great philosophers and nothing fits that bill quite like a cartoon.
This is the purpose of I Think, Therefore I Draw, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, two old friends who studied philosophy together at Harvard and have found that no one more adroitly expresses the finer points of the discipline of philosophy like a cartoonist having a day. They both contemplated the meaning of life and the grand design, if any, of the universe, but Klein made funny a profession, having written material for Lily Tomlin and Flip Wilson. Together they recognize the one-panel brilliance of a roster of acclaimed international cartoonists who have examined the great questions such as being in the world, god, the absence of the divine and what exactly is philosophy through the juxtaposition of image and word. With wit and humor, Klein and Cathcart build a bridge between intellectual rigor and accessibility. It is not quite the members of Monty Python dressed as the Bruces, all members of an Australian philosophy department who share the same name, singing their “Philosopher’s Song,” but I Think, Therefore I Draw prompts its share of laughs and knowledge while providing direction for the curious toward more challenging texts.
Cartoons lead each section of the book’s eighteen chapters, providing a catalyst for philosophical discussion. For example, a chapter entitled “OY, Vey!” examines philosophical pessimism and the belief that human life has any inherent meaning whatsoever, beginning with a cartoon by Bradford Veley that depicts two fish squeezed into a pint glass. One fish head is exposed to air while the other is submerged in water. Whether the glass is half full or half empty and your outlook pessimistic or optimistic depends on which fish you are.
In a subchapter called “A Paradox Walks into a Bar,” Cathcart and Klein introduce the Pinocchio paradox through an illustration by Carlo Chiostri from the Italian classic. Pinocchio stands with the blue fairy, his nose prodigiously long, above a caption that reads “My nose grows now!” It seems straightforward, but the caption creates the paradox. If Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies and he states that his nose is growing, then has he lied? Is what he’s saying true or false? It is a logical paradox akin to another concept called the liar’s paradox. According to Eubulides in the fourth century BCE, if a man says he’s lying and it’s true, then it’s false because he’s lying and vice versa. This paradox feels exceedingly pertinent for our times.
When it comes to concepts of God, Catchcart and Klein use a cartoon by Baloo to point out how the human race tends to keep its gods small. The cartoon depicts an angry, defensive God, white-bearded in the usual Christian aesthetic, standing at the edge of his cloud and yelling: “Intelligent Design? – Why, those patronizing little twerps!” This is a proof for the existence of God known as the argument from analogy. Humans make complicated things all the time that typically have a designer, ergo, the universe must have a designer. The problem with the analogy is that the universe is everything and unique. You can’t make an analogy to that, but we can make our gods petty and small.
Now all this thinking may infuriate you or make you feel smarter, but these are queries raised in three page subchapters like a philosophical amuse bouche or, since those paradoxes were weighty, appetizer. They leave you hungry for more than just a sample, and Cathcart and Klein have included a section at the end called “Biosketches” that provide career highlights for the philosophers mentioned. Your investigations may never progress beyond these pages. Then again, you might want to further your understanding of the social construction of gender by reading more Judith Butler because you first discovered her in this book. We live in a paradox these days. There has never been a time of greater ease to acquire knowledge, yet we grow ever more conspiratorial and anti-intellectual. We are heavy on snark and lacking in humor. I Think, Therefore I Draw offers a corrective to these circumstances, an opportunity to start the journey to thinking more interesting thoughts.